We take the Waters

Trip Start Jun 08, 2011
Trip End Jul 12, 2011

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Flag of Czech Republic  , Bohemia,
Friday, June 24, 2011

Well, here I am at the Grad Pupp around 3pm in the afternoon in Karlovy Vary musing on what a strange place this is. It is a Potemkin village of a sort, with these grand buildings, beautiful facades hiding in many cases, decrepit interiors. The communist era does not seem very far behind us. I guess the preponderance of Russians, makes it feel even less Westernized than it is tying to become.

Breakfast was great, a big buffet including pancakes made on a crepe skillet, omelets to order and a wide selection of salads, yogurts, granola, jams, compotes and hot items...more eggs and breakfast meats and bacon..plus cold cuts. There was also delicious oatmeal with maple syrup, nuts and other toppings I could take from roaming around the buffet. There were more families this morning than last night, so perhaps Morry's fears of this being like The Shining are misplaced! I managed to get a few stories on video of mom and dad's prior travels...the one about their trip to France just after the war when the franc was facing huge inflation and the currency printers could not keep up. Dad paid a cab driver 10 x the francs he should have.

Customer service remains sporadic. In some cases the people are friendly, but completely uninformed. In many guidebooks it speaks of the walk up the mountain to the Diana tower. It is a lovely hike, but try to get someone to tell you how to get there. The info person at the hotel appeared not to even know what we were talking about...and this site is described thusly in the guidebook. You have not seen Karlovy Vary if you have not visited the Diana Tower!

So we set off and as soon as we found the trail, conveniently located behind our hotel(making it even more imponderable as to why the guest services woman had no idea where it was!) it started to rain. We came back to the hotel, gathered our umbrellas (Mom and Dad were walking the boulevard), and started up the trail. At the beginning of the trail there is this completely abandoned building right by the funicular. There is really very little attempt to "pretty up" the tourist sites, although admittedly very few people were walking up. There do seem to be a lot of abandoned properties though. It is a lovely walk in the woods that is very badly marked. A funicular also takes you to the top, but of course, that was out of the question for me. At times, the trail markers point in two different directions, but we managed to figure out that the trail marked 17 in the map, was actually the trail marked by two white and one blue stripe. Once we had gathered this, it was pretty easy to find our way up. We were faced with a downpour at one point, but I optimistically pointed to a clear spot in the sky and convinced Morry to continue the climb. It did clear up, and at the top, where we met the funicular, we were rewarded with the said tower (tourist trap restaurant) and a fabulous view of the valley below us.

At the top of the hill, there is a tower which I walked up and Morry took the lift. There is a sign at the lift that it is available, but "sports types" can use the stairs. That fit me! Then Morry tried to take the funicular down, but without a ticket we could not, and I was more than content to walk down, the rain now behind us. After the past few days in the frenetic cities of Berlin and Prague, some time in the woods was a welcome break.

The hotel is beginning to fill up and I guess as the weekend approaches it will get busier. The springs seem to have people who have arrived on buses. As I write this later in the afternoon, it seems to have settled down a bit. Almost no one was on the trail to the Diana Tower, the crowds preferring the town. I still have the bitter metallic taste in my mouth of those restorative waters.

Karlovy Vary is not hectic, but it is filled with tourists...and the only language you really hear is Russian. Most shops, understandably cater to the Russian tourists,which may explain the selection of goods available (see below). After the climb, we decided to try the famous springs. There are 15 of them and they are supposed to help you with "locomotive" problems. Not sure I want to know the translation! Mom and dad had returned to the hotel as we came to return our umbrellas and had purchased one of the crazy sippy cups. It was a tiny one, lucky for me. Mom had already tried the water and said it was awful. Yet, there are hundreds of people crowding around these springs, filling vessels far larger than the tiny one of mine. I approached with an open mind. All I can say, is it was like drinking liquid minerals. I tried about 10 of them, tasting no more than a tiny swallow with my miniature cup. Each one was worse than the one before, the only difference being the temperature of the water. I said to Morry I think it is like the Emperor's New Clothes...no one is brave enough to say that it is awful. And really, you should see the size of some of these jugs. There are signs that the maximum you can fill is 1 litre! Judging by the looks of the crowds, I'm not so sure of the restorative powers, although without knowing exactly what locomotive problems are, maybe they are being miraculously healed. Or, perhaps these jugs are being used to service cars. I don't know, but we took some funny pictures anyway and seemed to be the only skeptics among a throng of believers.

We then walked the 4km or so stretch of boulevard, which again, has its charming and lovely points, but for the most part is populated by one shop after another of clothing (expensive and ugly), china and porcelain (expensive and ugly), jewelry (ditto) and restaurants. I am a pretty interested shopper, so to have a 4km stretch, back and forth along the river, making 8km of prime shopping real estate and having not one entice me enough to enter says something about the mercantile offerings. Either I am losing my desire, or really, this stuff is just gaudy and tasteless. Yesterday, when I did enter one leather glove store, the staff hovered over me in an almost distrustful way and nothing had prices. When I asked the cost of a pair of gloves, the clerk took out a calculator to press in 2200 to show me. I guess it is easier than trying to explain, but easier still would be to post prices. I always get nervous when they are not and a calculator, which is far to variable, is used to exhibit costs.

Dad described his mother and father in a picture here from 1929 walking down a street lined on both sides with trees, so we went looking for that area. We may have found it at the other end of the town from the hotel, but I am not sure. Meanwhile, he is worried that his parents visited in 1929 just before the crash and we are here now. Let us hope that history does not repeat itself.

We took the long walk in search of an information booth which was supposed to be in a hotel called the Thermal Hotel. Talk about throwback to the Soviet era It is this massive hulking block of a building dominating one end of the boulevard. Hideously ugly and soon to be home of the July 2011 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The signs directing you towards the info spot suddenly stop and we could not even enter the Thermal Hotel, where the outdoor patio is crumbling, the windows are streaked with grime, and there is an overall look of forlorn neglect. They do seem to be trying to spruce it up for the film festival, but what an odd place. We never did find information.

On our way meandering back, we shared a great margherita pizza in one of the hundreds of cafes that line the boulevard. It was attached to the Hotel Kosmos, a seedy looking place and the patio was filled with bikers. In fact, Karlovy Vary today is filled with bikers! Seedy though it may have been it had a clean WC and wifi, so as an added bonus, we were able to check our email. Just stopping to view the menu brought out the waiter who all but dragged us in. However, the meal was good...pizza and a beer. (185 crowns)

Again, it is really a strange place here. It is as if time stopped in 1929, its glory days as Carlsbad, and then again in the 1950's. I must say, and I am enjoying this trip immensely, but Eastern Europe still has a way to go in terms of providing the kind of tourist experience that many from the West expect. I can see how Howard's work in Montenegro is needed. We walked into one of the main spas here, famous since probably the turn of the Century. The outside of the Lazne III is ornate and elaborate, like those old Atlantic City buildings on the Beach. You walk inside and Morry says, it is like walking into a hotel in China during the 80's. Dingy, dark, hand-written signs (the closed info booth inside directing you back to the Thermal Hotel, where we could find no sign of information), run down empty hallways and corridors. And this is where you get a doctor to give you a full physical and recommend your spa treatment. No thanks! It is really a strange place!

Tonight is our last night as we head off by car to Krakow. It will be a long drive, probably over 8 hours, but it is time to pack our wagons and head out. Not only that, the weather seems to be changing again...overcast and much chillier than earlier in the day.

Back from the Embassy Restaurant and a delicious meal. Just a block away from the hotel, we entered a dark elegant series of rooms. The service was crisp and very good, but our highly efficient waiter was without affect and had n sense of humor. Dad and I had the trout, which was excellent. Mom had goulash with spaetzle. The goulash she said was salty. Morry has boar, which was tough, but that may be the nature of the beast. Literally. The Moravian white wine was quite nice, but the highlight was the three desserts we ordered. One was an apricot filled dumpling which was noted on a card on the table. What was not noted nor did the waiter tell us, that it took 20 minutes to prepare. Dad was starting to get rather annoyed, the coffee had come and we had finished it, but just in the nick of time, the dumplings arrived with the other two delicious selections. We ordered just because of the description, cooked strawberries with green peppers and ice cream. We had to try this. In fact, it was green pepperCORNS that were cooked with the strawberries and it was delicious! The spicy peppercorns were matched perfectly with the sweet strawberries and the ice cream! It was very yummy. The third dish was good, but felt like breakfast...pancakes with blueberry sauce and whipped cream. All in all, at the same price as last night's dinner of 2700 crowns, it was overwhelmingly better and well worth it. The reason I am putting in various prices is for posterity. Mom and dad were saying that when the Four Seasons Restaurant opened in the 50's the $12 lunch was at the time the most expensive restaurant meal in NY. I think the meal was 4 battered shrimp with a mustard sauce.

Another lovely evening, although it feels like a fall evening in Vermont and not a summer evening in June! Tomorrow we leave the strange contradictions of the Czech Republic and explore Poland.
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